Friday, November 4, 2011

What If The Phone Never Rings Again?

Disclaimer: The phone calls that brought on this post confused the hell out of me.  So much so that I'm not sure I can tell this in a coherent manner. I'll just sum it up here before I begin:  If you read it and find yourself asking, "What the hell was that all about?", I'll have conveyed it perfectly.

If you read blogs by freelancers, you've run across a common theme...paranoia about turning down jobs. Turning down a job...any job...runs counter to pretty much every instinct a freelancer has.  No matter how busy you may be, you're never sure your phone will ever ring again.  So maybe you get a call and you're already booked for those days.  I guarantee you'll try to figure out how to do two jobs at once before you turn them down.  Maybe you're working nights and somebody wants you do some scouting during the day.  You'll think long and hard about working a week shuttling back and forth between both jobs.  I'll sleep when I'm dead is a thought we've all entertained.  You end up turning down those jobs but you always wonder if you could have pulled it off if you'd really tried.

There are times when you get a call from someone who doesn't really have enough money.  They want you to work for half (or less) of your daily rate; they can't afford for you to hire the help the job will require; they want you to find places that will let them shoot for free.  These are a little less difficult to turn down, but you still have your doubts..  Every time you think about that job you turned down, and you will think about it, you'll find yourself wondering if you just turned down the next Spielberg. 

Then there are the rare occasions when you get a call that just confuses you. I got one of those yesterday.  My phone rang around 4:30 yesterday afternoon to find out  if I was available to do some scouting.  The caller gave his name and the name of the company he was working for...both of them ringing the vaguest of bells in my steel-trap sieve of a mind. (The company turns out to be a real commercial production company and the caller had been a Production Assistant* on a job I did  a year or so ago.)

I explained that I'm already booked for next week and he says, "That's no problem.  We need the scouting done right away. Could you scout tomorrow and over the weekend?" That voice in my head that wonders if the phone will ever ring again started nattering and I agreed (unenthusiastically), that I could probably do that.

Now comes the part where the caller usually tells me what they're looking for.  This is where he'd say, "It's a commercial for such-and-such-product and the Mom is in her kitchen with her three crazed kids and 'so-and-so' shows up at the door and saves the day with the Wonder-Product."  They usually want to send me a script.  Or a storyboard.  Or a synopsis.  They usually want to tell me that it'd be great if the kitchen had modern reproductions of 1940's appliances and maybe some exposed brick and a skylight.  And copper cookware hanging down from a rack. And the kids' drawings all over the refrigerator.  And there MUST be a center island in the kitchen. Frankly, they usually want to tell me more than I need to know to get the job done.

This guy's version of telling me what they're looking for consisted of telling me they need to shoot near the end of November and they need a place with two different rooms (that could "even be in two different cities"), to shoot over the course of three days. He tells me they've looked at random Manhattan Address - (as if I have a photographic archive in my head of every Manhattan address) - and how that would be perfect except that it only fits about 10 people and they need space for 50 people.  This is all he tells me.  What he's told me is nothing. 

He's told me that they need a couple of rooms that hold 50 people.  He hasn't told me if this is for a commercial or a TV series or a feature film or an infomercial or a documentary about NASCAR widows.  He's told me that they need two rooms that hold 50 people.

Hmmmm, The Possibilities.
There are a lot of lecture halls that hold 50 people.

The Yankees' locker room will hold 50 people.

No problem at all getting 50 people into The Rainbow Room.

Hell!  I can cram 50 people into a little corner the the Hunts Point Fish Markets!

There's also the question of what's happening in this room that needs to hold 50 people. What exactly are those 50 people going to be doing?  Is it a scene about some Gala Charity Ball with 50 guests and he's not including the crew in his description?  Maybe they've got a crew of 50 people to shoot two people having an intimate conversation.

The thought crosses my mind that this may be something that has to be kept under wraps until it's released to the masses!

I've worked on things like that before. Most people have.  These are the things that Non-Disclosure Agreements were invented for.  It's really hard to have people shoot the commercial meant to promote your exciting brandy-new top-secret product without telling them what the brandy-new top-secret product is. 

For the moment, I decided to give up on that line of questioning. I asked what kind of schedule they're on. He tells me the producers would like me to come into the office first thing in the morning and show them some possibilities.  Uh...What?  I'm supposed to have possibilities to show them before they tell me what I'm looking for?  Before I get a chance to look for the thing that I-don't-know-what-it-is?  I'm starting to think he doesn't want a scout so much as he wants a Locations Library.  These are more common in L.A. than they are in New York, but there are companies here that just have a bunch of stuff on file** for you to look through.  I suggest that he might want to go in that direction.  He calls me back five minutes later to tell me, No, we want a Location Manager/Scout, not a service. They just want you to make your calls from the office so they can watch your process.

My PROCESS? My PROCESS is that you tell me what the fuck you want to shoot and when the fuck you want to shoot it and how the fuck much you have to pay for it I go out and find it.  That's my process.

I was starting (OK, I had already started a while ago), to get a bad feeling about this gig. I went back to trying to find out what they actually want to shoot.  After two more phone calls, he cheerfully announces, "It's a commercial!"  That's all he has to tell me that he hasn't already told me.

I tactfully expressed my regrets that I didn't think I was the guy they wanted to hire.  I tried telling him that I wasn't sure I could deliver what they wanted in the way they wanted it.  I tried telling him I wasn't sure I understood their expectations so I wasn't sure I could meet them.  I tried everything short of saying "I'm not at all sure you people have the first clue what you're doing".  No matter how I tried to say, "It's not you; it's me", he just didn't want to accept it.

Eventually, I just told him I was sorry but he was going to have to find someone else. And I'm still not entirely sure what the hell it was all about. And on top of all that, I'm not 100% sure I didn't commit some terrible faux pas (to be revealed at a later date), by turning down the Ambiguous-Enigmatic-Incomprehensible Mystery Job of 2011. Since it's more likely that some other poor schmuck of a Location Manager is now pulling his hair out, I'll manage to live with it.  But I'll always wonder What the hell was that all about?

Update: A couple of the comments seem geared toward making sure I don't feel too bad about turning down this job.  Don't worry. Sure, I'll have doubts about whether or not I did the right thing...but they're really minor doubts. I'm not seriously second-guessing myself.  Also (and this is important), I'm not willing to assign the blame to the P.A. based on what little evidence I've got. It's entirely plausible that he's just a victim of his boss's instructions.
*Getting the call from a Production Assistant doesn't set off any alarm bells, nor should it. It's common for Producers to assign a P.A. to make a bazillion calls to see who's available and then the Producer gets involved.  Or the P.A. might have come up in the world.  That's where Coordinators and Production Managers and Producers come from. (Rumors to the contrary, Producers are not just hatched with that alarming temperament.)

**Locations Libraries (or Services) and Location Managers are really two separate types of businesses. I could go into a long explanation of why the two different business models exist, but suffice it to say, Location Manager tend to come onto a project and start from scratch each time.


TimBo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TimBo said...

I also recently had a strange work interview (that is where is was heading when I wrote the comments here).

I am an independent computer software development consultant. Normally I do have a phone interview that lasts from 10-20 minutes (my resume looks really good and I have awesome references from companies whose names you would recognize) and I get a three month contract that may last up to a couple of years.

On Tuesday I did a face to face interview that lasted 3.5 hours. The first ten minutes was about me and then the rest was about him and his software development company. The last ten minutes was about money (I want to much). It was just bizarre. I doubt that it will work out. And of course I will wonder, if I don't take his offer in this economy, will I find something else?

vince said...

As another independent contractor who has been one since 1987, yes, absolutely. That's always my fear. It's why I'm a horrible waffler on taking a day off out of town for more than a day or two.

John the Scientist said...

You did not want this job. Do not fret over it. People this disorganized do not turn into the next Spielberg. Someone konwing what you do and trying to get the absoutle minimum rate? Maybe. Ther terminally clueless (and whoever hired that PA is also clueless) - no.

Warner said...

I agree with John the Scientist. You did not want this job.

I've dealt with that PA, or their twin, several times.

A.J. said...

The scenario that plays in my head is that some producers for a commercial tried to save a few bucks and find a location on their own. They failed miserably and admitted that they need some help. So the P.A. goes, "Hey, I worked on some movie last year that had a locations guy! And I still have the crew list!" and so he gives you a call.

Problem is, the kid doesn't know how to talk to people in other departments yet and therefore, doesn't know how to explain the job or know what kind of details you'd be interested in because all he's thinking is, "Location guy finds the location. Perfect!" Especially since I'm guessing when he gets offered a job, his answer is "Yes," no questions asked.

Anyway, Production wants you to come in to "observe your process" so on the next project, they can find the damn location themselves, saving them a bundle or whatever your rate is.

At least, that's the story that played out in my head. Has Hollywood made me cynical?

A.J. said...

It also just occurred to me that I my previous comment had nothing to do with the point of your post.

But from my experience, if your initial contact with them was all confusion and no substance, chances are you're not missing out on much.

Nathan said...


Your comment actually had more to do with the point of my post than my questioning myself for turning it down. I told you all I was going to write it up barely coherently.

Keelytm said...

I kind of hope it was a documentary about NASCAR widows. But even if it's not, I feel your pain. And, I kind of feel bad for the P.A. I get the feeling that he wasn't told anything, and he just got caught in the middle. Stuff like this drives me mad, though. It's part of the reason I got out of freelance work.